Canada’s embassy in Jordan, which is run by Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s handpicked ambassador and former top bodyguard, is being linked in news reports to an unfolding international terrorism and spy scandal.
The federal government refused to comment Friday on multiple Turkish media reports that a foreign spy allegedly working for Canadian intelligence – and arrested in Turkey for helping three young British girls travel to Syria to join Islamic State militants – was working for the Canadian embassy in Amman, Jordan.
Reports also say the suspect has confessed to working for Canadian intelligence and was doing so in order to obtain Canadian citizenship. The man previously travelled to Canada with the embassy’s approval, said one report.
Canada’s ambassador to Jordan is Bruno Saccomani, the former RCMP officer who was in charge of Harper’s security detail until the prime minister appointed him almost two years ago as the envoy to Amman, with dual responsibility for Iraq.
The suspect in custody is a Syrian intelligence operative named Mohammed Mehmet Rashid – dubbed Doctor Mehmet Rashid – who helped the three London schoolgirls travel to Syria upon their arrival in Turkey, according to Yeni Safak, a conservative and Islamist Turkish newspaper known for its strong support of the government.
Other Turkish news outlets identified the man with slightly different spellings: Mohammed al Rashid or Mohammad Al Rashed.
Police arrested Rashid more than a week ago in a province near Turkey’s border with Syria, multiple news agencies reported.
The initial police report says Rashid confessed he was working for the Canadian intelligence agency and that he has flown to Jordan to share intelligence with other agents working for the Canadian Embassy in Amman, various news outlets reported.
The suspect claimed he worked for the intelligence service in order to get Canadian citizenship for himself, said various news reports. The Turkish intelligence service confiscated his mobile phone and computer, which were provided by the Canadian government, according to reports.
Computer records revealed Rashid entered Turkey 33 times with his Syrian passport since June 2013, and agents discovered passport images of 17 more people, aside from the ones belonging to the three British girls, Yeni Safak reported.
The Citizen has not been able to independently confirm the Turkish news reports.
The Syrian agent reportedly received deposits of between $800 and $1,500 through bank accounts opened in the United Kingdom.
A federal government source in Canada said the individual arrested is not a Canadian citizen and “was not an employee of CSIS,” but nobody in government has said this on the record. Nor has the government categorically ruled out reports that the alleged spy was working for or helping the Canadian government in some capacity.
Turkish news channel A Haber reported the 28-year-old man was a dentist who fled the Syrian conflict into Jordan, and sought asylum in another country before the Canadian embassy took an interest in his asylum case.
He then travelled to Canada by approval of the embassy and stayed there for a while before returning to Jordan, according to news outlets that cited A Haber’s coverage.
The news channel claimed he contacted a Canadian embassy official in Jordan called “Matt,” and quoted Turkish police sources that Matt was likely an employee of a British intelligence service, said a report from Istanbul-based newspaper Daily Sabah, citing the A Haber coverage. The suspect only acted as a smuggler and was paid by the intelligence service.
A Haber has released two different videos of the man arrested, with one video allegedly showing him leading the girls into Syria and another of him in custody being led away by security officials.
The choppy footage in the first video, filmed by the man now in custody, shows the girls’ journey from Turkey into Syria, Turkish media reported.
The three girls arrived at Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport, then headed to the southern city of Gaziantep near the Syrian border, Daily Sabah reported. The girls then took a cab from Gaziantep to a location where they were greeted by the man.
The suspect starts shooting video when the girls arrive and asks for their names, before telling them to take their baggage and not leave anything behind. He then informs the girls they will be in Syria within one hour, Daily Sabah reported.
The girls and suspect then hop into another vehicle. He then delivers them to Islamic State militants in Syria and returns to Turkey, and is later apprehended by Turkish authorities, according to the newspaper.
In Ottawa, Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney has refused to comment on the reports, citing operational security. The Canadian Security Intelligence Service, RCMP and Prime Minister’s Office have also refused comment.
The official Opposition pursued the Conservatives Friday in question period over the alleged link to Canada’s embassy in Jordan, which they noted is run by Harper’s handpicked ambassador.
NDP deputy leader Megan Leslie asked the government to confirm that someone linked to Canadian intelligence – “either an employee, an agent or an asset, is being detained in Turkey.”
Roxanne James, the parliamentary secretary to Blaney, confirmed the government is aware of the reports but, like the minister, refused to provide any details “on operational matters of national security.”
Defence Minister Jason Kenney, speaking to reporters Friday in Calgary, said he has never heard Rashid’s name before and refused further comment. “We don’t comment on allegations or operations about our intelligence agencies,” Kenney said.
NDP foreign affairs critic Paul Dewar said the government’s refusal to outright deny the reports out of Turkey lends credence to them.
“They haven’t responded,” he said. “And in light of the fact that there’s been more than 24 hours for the government to establish the facts as to what happened, I can only conclude that there is some truth to this story.”
Dewar said if the reports are true, that would be devastating for Canada’s credibility, and, at the very least, reiterate the need to increase oversight over the spy agency’s activities.
“We have been engaged with someone who is not blocking people from travelling to Syria to join up with ISIL, they’re actually facilitating it,” he said.
“So the government has to understand that they’re accountable for the actions of our spy agency and whomever they work with.”
Should the allegations prove true, Dewar said there should be an immediate investigation into what happened, including how CSIS would have recruited such a person to work for it. At the same time, he questioned who would lead such an investigation and where the report would go given the lack of independent monitoring over the spy agency.
“This is why we don’t support Bill C-51,” he said. “There’s no proper oversight right now. It’s a black hole.”
Dewar also noted the reports say Rashid was recruited out of Canada’s embassy in Jordan, which is headed by Saccomani. He said it is ironic given the government defended Saccomani’s lack of diplomatic experience by touting his background in security issues when the prime minister appointed him to the post last year.
Exactly why Turkish officials chose to publicly identify the man’s affiliation as being with Canada, and possibly CSIS, remains unclear.
Relations between Turkey and Canada were rocky after the Conservative government formally recognized the killing of Armenians by Ottoman Turks during the First World War as a genocide, but they have become more cordial in recent years.
In particular, Canada has remained largely silent while other Western countries are criticizing Turkey for not doing more to stop the flow of foreign fighters into Syria, many of whom have joined Islamic State (ISIL).
It has also refrained from speaking out too loudly on what some have seen as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s increasingly authoritarian bent and attempt to turn Turkey away from secularism.
Shamima Begum, 15, Amira Abase, 15, and Kadiza Sultana, 16, are the three British girls believed to have joined the Islamic State, after they left their London homes in early February, travelled to Turkey and crossed the border into Syria.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu has said the suspect arrested worked for the intelligence agency of a country that is part of the U.S.-led coalition fighting the Islamic State.
He didn’t identify the country, but multiple media outlets, citing security officials, first reported Thursday the individual was working for Canadian security intelligence.
CSIS may well be operating in the region.
If Rashid worked in some capacity for CSIS, and based on reports his computer contained images of passport and travel documents of several apparent ISIL recruits, it’s conceivable he was actually gathering intelligence for CSIS about those recruits and the methods, logistics and contacts for spiriting them into Syria, said Ray Boisvert, former assistant director of intelligence for CSIS.
“If he was a CSIS asset, he’s likely an observer whose only job is to report what he saw,” Boisvert said.
If his computer did, in fact, contain information about many other ISIL recruits in Syria, “that’s a hell of intelligence operation, well done.”
Boisvert said relations between Turkey and Western coalition countries have become acrimonious, especially with the British. It has “become a very high, politically-charged discussion about who’s to blame,” for the ISIL recruit pipeline through Turkey into Syria.
If Rashid was working for CSIS in some fashion, the spy agency’s current mandate would prevent him or the organization from doing anything to have stopped the three British girls from reaching Syria. Under current Canadian law, CSIS and its assets are only allowed to gather intelligence.
Ironically, the government’s contentious security legislation, Bill C-51, would empower CSIS to disrupt such activities that threatened the security of Canada.
The reports come as the government pushes to enact two pieces of divisive security legislation giving CSIS extraordinary powers at home and abroad. But critics argue that without additional oversight and review, Canada’s security agencies could run amok with the new powers.
Under Bill C-51, the CSIS mandate would dramatically expand from its current intelligence collection-only role to actively reducing and disrupting threats to national security, whether in Canada or abroad. If those disruption activities are illegal or unconstitutional in Canada, the legislation authorizes Federal Court judges to grant CSIS warrants to break the law.
The bill also gives explicit direction to CSIS and Canadian courts to ignore the statutes of sovereign states in pursuing such operations. That development was highlighted in an online New York Times op-ed article this week by Canadian legal scholars Craig Forcese and Kent Roach.
Another piece of government security legislation before the Senate, Bill C-44, which amends the CSIS Act, also would allow Federal Court judges to “without regard to any other law, including that of any foreign state … authorize activities outside of Canada to enable the service to investigate a threat to the security of Canada.”
Those activities would be limited to traditional intelligence gathering, which is done, usually covertly, by intelligence services the world over.
JASON FEKETE, OTTAWA CITIZEN
LEE BERTHIAUME, OTTAWA CITIZEN
IAN MACLEOD, OTTAWA CITIZEN
Last Updated: March 13, 2015 7:32 PM EDT
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